The small fishing hamlet of Wied iż-Żurrieq, located on Malta’s southern coast, is today a popular tourist spot, known in particular for the boats that one can take from here to reach the nearby famous Blue Grotto. In truth, however, this small inlet, which for many centuries offered shelter to the local fishermen in times of inclement weather, has a lot more to offer to the visitor.
Next to the numerous restaurants, cafés, and souvenir shops that were built in recent decades to cater for tourists, there stands a much older structure, located in a prominent position overlooking the bay. Sciutu Tower was one of a series of coastal watch towers commissioned by the Knights of St. John in the 1630s to give early warning of pirate attacks, and to deter enemy landings in the area.
The squarish structure consists of two floors, each with vaulted ceilings. Guards would have accessed the tower via its upper floor, using a ladder or rope, while the windowless lower floor - used for storage - was connected to the one above it by means of a hole in its ceiling. A small spiral staircase set within the thickness of the wall provided access to the roof, from where two small cannons protected the small cove below.
After the British took over Malta in 1800, Sciutu Tower remained in use and was manned by the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment, and later the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery, until the 1870s, when it was abandoned. During World War Two, however, it was manned once more, this time by the Coast Police, before being turned into a police station until as recently as 2002. After almost a decade of neglect, it was restored by Din l-Art Ħelwa, a local heritage trust, and since 2019, it is regularly open to the public, offering amazing views towards the sea and the small island of Filfla.
Apart from the picturesque scenery on land, the area around Wied iż-Żurrieq is also known for its spectacular underwater seascape, making it a very popular area for scuba diving, especially due to its clear waters and the depth of the sea in this part of the island.
In particular, most divers tend to visit the wreck of the Um El Faroud, a Libyan-owned tanker which was sadly involved in a terrible tragedy in 1995, when it accidentally blew up whilst undergoing repairs at the Malta Drydocks, resulting in the death of nine Maltese dock workers.
A few years later, however, the ship was deliberately scuttled at a depth of 35 metres just outside Wied iż-Żurrieq, to turn it into a diving attraction. Today, this man-made wreck is known to be a paradise for fish, and an artificial reef that supports many species of underwater flora and fauna.
Another interesting structure that was once intended to protect this small cove, is the World War Two-era pillbox. In the 1930s, the rise of Fascism in nearby Italy was viewed as a threat to Malta’s security, resulting in a re-examination of the island’s defences. In particular, the increased threat of invasion resulting from the Abyssinian Crisis in 1935 set in motion the construction of numerous small pillboxes, consisting of concrete machine gun emplacements that could defend particular strong points. More would eventually be built following the outbreak of World War Two.
Most of these pillboxes were built along the northern and south-eastern coast of Malta, were most of the accessible beaches were located. Archives show that this particular piece of land was handed over to the War Department in late 1940 for the urgent construction of a pillbox to defend against the possibility of invasion.
The Wied iż-Żurrieq pillbox was one of those that was camouflaged to help it blend in with its surroundings by means of rubble stone cladding. This was intended to make it resemble the traditional 'girna', a type of traditional corbelled hut found in rural areas of Malta. Far from being harmless, however, it would have been equipped with four machine guns which were intended to make short work of enemy troops trying to come ashore in the area. Pillboxes continued to be built until the threat of invasion was lifted in mid-1942.